INDIA 2012 DAY 1 – Wednesday, October 18, 2012
It’s said that the official language of India is Hindi, but in reality, it’s honking.
It’s hard to imagine the variety of horn sounds that are produceable by transport vehicles – and this is from a Los Angeleno who has heard every variation of La Cucuracha ever played by a truck. (I learn later that some Indian truck drivers have a selection of horn tones that they play according to their mood that day!).
And yet, on my first night in India, rather than keeping me awake, I’m lulled to sleep by the harmonies of beeping and the barking of street dogs. I’m bemused rather than annoyed by the sounds of this city that I’ve only seen in darkness. I’m feeling a little self-congratulatory. I’ve made it here – this is a big deal for me. I agree with Sharon when she points out that people so often talk about doing things and never do them. I’m a do-er. Yay for me.
In the light of morning, I’m feeling a little wary about what I’m soon to face. A friend and co-worker has told me that India is…hard. Now, he’s a stunt man, and he’s been chased down an alley in South America. I’ve been forewarned about the garbage, the touts, the sickly street dogs, the begging children, the broken people. I don’t know how I’m going to react or how it’s going to affect me; if I’ve made a mistake and have taken on more than I can handle. I notice that our lodging for the next few nights, the clean, comfortable and not unstylish Hotel Vikram is, hmmm, behind a gate, with armed security guards. And it has a metal detector. And is across the street from a major Metro station, lined with a daunting contingent of bicycle rickshaws. I’m anxious to start snapping pictures, but smart girls know to trust their instincts. This one stays safely in the hotel driveway and uses her feeble zoom lens.
Bicycle Rickshaw Squad
My timid journey outside yields a picture both heartbreaking and heart-warming – the first of many on this trip. In a fenced lot adjacent to the hotel, a man is taking care to feed a street dog and her litter of puppies. The state of being for all creatures great and small here is not easy or simple, but each and every one seems to be making the best of it.
After our Indian buffet breakfast (no Indian food I’ve ever had in America comes close to how flavorful and delicious it is here) we meet our fellow attendees for an orientation with our workshop leaders and tour guide, Raj. We try to listen patiently, fiddling with our camera settings with itchy shutter fingers, and then finally, we are unleashed!
We pile into our tour coach and venture out into the city for our first taste of the sheer madness of Delhi traffic — the swerving cars, bicycle and auto rickshaws; darting motorcycles driven by men with sari-clad women perched sidesaddle behind them, casually hanging onto the seat with one hand and a baby with the other. Pedestrians stroll through this chaos with a seeming disregard for personal safety. Raj tells us that the best way to cross the street is to just “close your eyes and walk,” the theory being if you move quickly, the traffic can’t react to you. But if you move slowly, apparently it just softly flows around you like a stream slips around rocks. I choose never to test this theory, because I’ve also learned that Indians have a wry and wicked sense of humor, and I think Raj may be trying to eliminate one or more of us to have a more manageable group size.
Our bus has TOURISTS painted across the front windshield to give advance warning of the approach of loud foreigners who cannot say no to a $2 box of Taj Mahal magnets.
The flip side is that gorgeous Indian kids wave to you everywhere you go.
Our first stop is the Lodi Gardens, where we order lunch from their exotically ambient Cafe to be ready for us after an hour or so on the Gardens grounds. Now, this is the middle of the city, and it’s called Lodi Gardens, so I’m anticipating something like the gardens of my land — a botanical survey with little signs and lovely mass plantings. And Raj is being very casual, like, oh, we will go see the gardens now. As we walk down a pretty shaded allee, line with Neem and palm trees and fringed with dracaena, I am not, at all, expecting THIS:
The Bada Gumbad
It’s really just your typical urban park, with dogs sleeping in the sun and lovers talking in whispers on shaded benches, and 15th century ruins just hanging out in the background, encircled by wheeling flocks of bright green swallow-tailed parakeets. I’m in freaking INDIA.
The Lodi Gardens is a 90 acre city park that also happens to contain a number of architecturally and historically significant tombs, mosques and other structures built by some of the earliest rulers of Delhi. Over here is a jogging path, and over there is the Sheesh Gumbad, a tomb of unknown inhabitants with remnants of the vibrant blue tiles that once ornately decorated its facade.
It’s obvious that the Indian people have great cultural pride. There’s no litter or “aerosol art” to be seen. The Archaeological Survey of India (which was, interestingly, founded by the British during the colonial period) oversees the preservation and restoration of this and thousands of other historical sites and ruins. It’s a country with a rich past that appreciates beauty in all forms, and there’s no lack of it here.
In addition to my first taste of Indian history, I’ve learned another important lesson in Indian culture. They like to surprise and astound you. And I will allow myself to be surprised and astounded every day. From this point on, I will mostly walk around impersonating Jack Benny – my mouth hanging open, my hand slapped to my cheek, shaking my head in amazement.
After an hour or so (not enough time, whatever it was), we returned to the Lodi Gardens Cafe, “chimping” over our photos, and looking forward to much-needed replenishment. The cafe is a popular local spot, with indoor and outdoor seating, including covered wagons piled with cushions and romantic private pavilions. Marigolds are everywhere — bowls, pots and garlands of them, pathways and even washroom floors are strewn with saffron petals.
India is said to be a study in contrasts, and by the end of this day, I’ll have an idea of just how extreme those contrasts are.
I have gasped at how they lived — and soon I will have a glimpse at how they live. We’re on to Old Delhi, and the Chandni Chowk awaits.